Remembering Chokwe Lumumba

 
On February 25, 2014, Comrade Chokwe Lumumba, leader of the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) and the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, died. The following interview was conducted on March 23, 2014 on Africa Live on the Uhuru Radio Network. In it, Chairman Omali Yeshitela tells host Dedan Sankara about his relationship with Chokwe Lumumba and his thoughts on his death and his significance.
 

 
Dedan Sankara: Chair­man, you’ve known Chokwe Lumumba for quite some time. He was a speaker at the Fifth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party in 2010, and, most recently, he sent a statement of solidar­ity as the mayor of the city of Jackson, Mississippi to the Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party that took place in December 2013. Please share with us your thoughts on hearing of the death of Chokwe Lumumba.
 
Chairman Omali Yeshitela: Chokwe was one of the few remaining stalwarts of the Afri­can Liberation Movement in this country. We’ve had serious po­litical and ideological struggle at different times, but we had real respect for each other notwith­standing the line differences.
 
The thing that was striking about Chokwe is the fact that he was clear that liberation had to mean self-determination and self-government.
 
He was clear that the fun­damental contradiction that we were confronted with stemmed from the fact that we were not a self-governing people, and that was the primary basis of the unity that we had.
 
That unity was reinforced by the fact that Chokwe was not just someone who had certain beliefs, but he acted them out in the world.
 
His earlier political life re­volved around his participation in what was called the Provi­sional Government of the Re­public of New Afrika.
 
Most people knew of it and perhaps know of it today as the Republic of New Afrika, which was an organization that pre­sumed itself to be the govern­ing body of African people in this country, whom it had con­sidered to be new Africans.
 
It saw five states in the U.S. South as being the territorial national homeland of Africans in this country.
 
Chokwe, on occasion, had to suffer seriously violent, armed attacks by the FBI and different police organizations, and then he became a lawyer and defended some of the most important political forces in our struggle.
 
He was a really important force in our struggle. When he became mayor of Jackson, Mis­sissippi, it provided an opportu­nity, he thought, for him to try and implement some kinds of progressive politics that would have allowed the establishment of the kind of base in Mississippi for the independence struggle that he was so much a part of.
 
It was a real surprise to learn of his death. I knew that he had some health issues in the re­cent past but had no idea that there were any life-threatening problems that he suffered from.
 
We still don’t know the de­tails of what it is that he was supposed to have died of, but he will certainly be missed.
 
DS: Can you tell us the history of your relationship with Chokwe Lumumba?
 
OY: My dealing with Chokwe had nothing to do with the fact that he was a lawyer. It had to do more with his direct partici­pation in the political arena. I’m not suggesting that one cannot participate in the political arena in that capacity as a lawyer, be­cause clearly he did that.
 
He defended Assata, he defended other kinds of revo­lutionary forces, and so, obvi­ously, that was something that occurred within the national lib­eration struggle. But that’s not how I knew him.
 
I knew him as a young per­son, before he even became a lawyer. I think the first time I met Chokwe was here in the city of St. Petersburg, Florida.
 
It must’ve been in the late‘60s. He was just a youngster traveling with Imari Obadele who was then the President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika.
 
I’ve known him subse­quently throughout the years when the Party had organized the African National Repara­tions Organization.
 
We were holding tribunals, putting imperialism on trial to help African people recognize the validity of the reparations demand and also demonstrat­ing empirically the damage done to African people, not just through slavery, but sub­sequently looking at the treat­ment and conditions of African people throughout this coun­try.
 
At different times, over 12 years or so, Chokwe would come and testify at these tri­bunals.
 
We also knew him because at some juncture, there was a kind of peeling off of certain components of the Republic of New Afrika, and Chokwe initi­ated the development of the New Afrikan People’s Organi­zation (NAPO).
 
There were times where we organized various kinds of activities, actions, demonstra­tions, mobilizations, and con­ferences that NAPO participat­ed in. So, it was in these politi­cal arenas that I knew Chokwe mostly.
 
Now we had a serious struggle, and we ended up publishing a book based on the polemics that came out of that struggle where a sector of the then Republic of New Afrika was actually engaged in leading mobilizations that were united with the police departments in talking about taking our communities back, in response to the crack ques­tion.
 
At that time, there were many people who did not un­derstand that crack was some­thing that was imposed on our communities by the govern­ment, that it was part of coun­terinsurgency, and that it was something that was used to justify the ongoing attack on the most vulnerable sector of the African community, the working class.
 
At first, the drugs them­selves were part of the attack, and then the government re­sponse to the drugs that it put there was a part of the attack.
 
So our responsibility was to identify the real enemy— the U.S. government that was putting drugs there and using them to wreak havoc in our communities—and to defend the African working class that was being victimized on both ends.
 
When I say both ends, I mean as the recipients of the drugs and the drug economy being imposed on our com­munity and as the recipients of the violence that’s led to more than a million African people being locked up in prisons in this country.
 
So we had serious polem­ics that we initiated at forces who were involved in that, and particularly at the so-called New Afrikan Movement that was the main proponent of that position at the time.
 
Also, we had a struggle be­cause, for the longest period of time, the people who were engaged in the Five State po­sition did not distinguish them­selves ideologically from capi­talists and socialists and what have you. So we engaged in a struggle with them that finally pushed them to declare them­selves to be socialists and, at least nominally, opposed to capitalism.
 
This was the context with which I knew Chokwe. I felt that we at different times were contending, but we were con­tending within a common tra­jectory toward independence for African people, from the control of the U.S. or any other kind of external power.
 
DS: Chairman, you said that the Republic of New Af­rika and the African People’s Socialist Party were in the same struggle for African Liberation. Let’s talk about the history of the Republic of New Afrika and the theory of the Black Belt South and how that diverges from the philosophy of African Inter­nationalism.
 
OY: Its founding confer­ence was held in Detroit. Sev­eral hundred people attended, and they consolidated what they characterized as the Re­public of New Afrika.
 
They were influenced a lot by Malcolm X who had been brought, while he was alive, to speak in Detroit by some of the same people who were involved in organizing the Re­public of New Afrika.
 
Again, the Republic of New Afrika made an assumption that our experience in the so-called Black Belt South had created this “New Afrika.”
 
This was something that was informed by the Black Belt South theory that had come from the Communist Party in 1928 following the success that they and others had in de­stroying the movement of Mar­cus Garvey.
 
But instead of just a gener­al theory of a Black Belt South, they came up with the notion that there were five specific states in the U.S. South that included Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana.
 
This was a contiguous land mass that had a concentration of African people there, and it facilitated the idea of being able to put together a program of struggle that could capture these territories as a New Afri­kan nation.
 
Of course we had differ­ences with the Republic of New Afrika in terms of where the national homeland of Afri­can people really is and on the question of whether or not we were New Afrikans that had been transformed into some other entity than the same Af­ricans who were brought here some years ago.
 
We had differences based on the fact that central to the genocide that had been im­posed on the Indigenous pop­ulation was the theft and oc­cupation of their land.
 
Even as we’re having this discussion now, there are these concentration camps, referred to as Indian Reser­vations, where many of the remainder of the Indigenous population are trapped in the worst kind of conditions.
 
We felt like any effort to claim this land as our own would contribute to the attack on the Indigenous peoples here who still have no rights and no resources.
 
So we felt like that was extremely problematic and placed us on the side of reac­tion as opposed to on the side of revolution.
 
It was clear to us that Afri­ca is the national homeland of African people and that Africa is central to our future.
 
This does not mean that African people outside of Af­rica—whether in the United States or the Caribbean or throughout Europe and vari­ous other places—do not have the basis for struggle.
 
It does mean that central to this struggle is recognition that, just as the land of the In­digenous people is critical to their own identity and to their own oppressive conditions, the land of African people— which is Africa—is a funda­mental question.
 
No matter what our condi­tions happen to be any place outside of Africa, these condi­tions owe themselves to the fact that Africa was assaulted by Europe as a part of the pro­cess of building the European nation and capitalism itself.
 
Therefore to have a genu­ine response to our condition, it presupposes the need for black people everywhere to recognize that and struggle for the emancipation and unifica­tion of our national homeland.
 
If you start picking apart the struggle or condition of African people in the specific places where we are located as the basis for our struggle, then what you end up doing is isolating the struggle of Afri­can people in one place from the struggle of African people in all the other places.
 
So Africa has been taken away from Africans. The condi­tions that we suffer in the vari­ous places are due to that fact that we have been dispersed. Our national homeland and our national identity have been under assault, and all of the resources that ought to belong to us go now to serve other en­tities at our expense, particu­larly Europe and America, but increasingly others.
 
So we believe that the best approach to this question is one that recognizes the fun­damental, universal contradic­tion that we suffer from and that will give us the benefit of unity of all African people everywhere, consciously en­gaged in the same struggle, like Marcus Garvey was able to do in the first quarter of the 20th Century.
 
We don’t think that just self-determination in the Unit­ed States is enough.
 
It cannot solve the funda­mental contradiction, but we unite with everybody who can agree with the fact that African people are engaged in a strug­gle for self-determination.
 
It is our responsibility as a Party and as an international movement to build revolution­ary organization, in various places around the world, that would allow us to take the rev­olution to its completion—the liberation and unification of Africa under the leadership of the African working class.
 
Just as today, the condi­tions of existence of African people around the world stem from the conditions of exis­tence in Africa as a whole continent held under neocolo­nial domination, the existence of African people around the world will be impacted in a very positive way by the conditions in Africa once it is liberated.
 
Africa becomes the power that is able to extend our free­dom every place else in the world.
 
DS: Chairman, why would a revolutionary enter the realm of electoral politics within the imperialist sys­tem?
 
OY: I assume that Chokwe did that in Mississippi because the politic that informed his actions again made the as­sumption of there being five states in the U.S. South that constitute the national territory of African people.
 
I think that he had con­cluded that capturing electoral power would be a means by which he could facilitate this struggle for independence in the South.
 
That there can be an accu­mulation of power, organized immediately around the elec­toral process that can some­how be transformed into a situation to win actual power that could contribute to an in­dependence movement there.
 
They tried to initiate what was called a Jackson Plan, which presupposed a new col­lective kind of economics that they would try to implement and various other kinds of things.
 
He was actively trying to recruit Africans to come back to the South and come into Mississippi, from his position as mayor of Jackson. I think that he saw this as a really important effort to facilitate a strategy that would bring Afri­cans into active political life.
 
DS: What are your thoughts on the possibil­ity of a continuance of the progressive strategy that Chokwe Lumumba started in Jackson, Mississippi?
 
OY: I’m hoping that the en­try into electoral politics was something that was bigger than Comrade Chokwe; that it was a response to some kind of strategic objective of the revolutionary organization that he represented.
 
I’m hoping that his en­try into electoral politics was based on decisions made by a revolutionary organization that had certain long term goals and objectives in mind because otherwise, even if Comrade Chokwe were hold­ing onto revolutionary prin­ciples, the ability for him to do anything was going to be extremely limited. Even if he were effective, it would only be effective for the duration of his position as mayor.
 
To me, running for mayor should have been something that was facilitating a greater revolutionary agenda that was a response to a program, tac­tics and strategies that had been worked out by a revolu­tionary organization.
 
One of the interesting things is, with the selection of Barack Hussein Obama as U.S. president, there are more and more African people ev­erywhere who see the elector­al process as the principle way to achieve power.
 
Now we have the example of Chokwe. We have had the example of Charles Barron who is on the city council in New York and has done some pretty progressive things, us­ing his position there to make some really important kinds of statements.
 
We have in Newark Ras Baraka who is also running for office.
 
But the question still re­mains from the perspective of the African People’s Social­ist Party, what connections do these campaigns and these elections have to revolutionary organization as some kind of revolutionary strategy?
 
We saw at one juncture in Chicago when Harold Wash­ington was elected mayor in that city, which was a big thing. People were extraordinarily excited, and he appeared to be a relatively progressive person.
 
But with his death, there was no movement, no revo­lutionary organization or any­thing. In fact, now in Chicago, we see Rahm Emmanuel— who was right out of Barack Obama’s office and has his own history of reactionary poli­tics—is the mayor and schools are being closed under his leadership and all kinds of oth­er horrible things.
 
If we are going to enter into electoral politics, our entry should be in many ways a criti­cism of the electoral process, as it exists, for its inability to serve the interests of African people.
 
We go into it for the pur­pose of bringing our people out of the electoral process as the only means of doing things and to enhance the power of the people as opposed to the office of the colonial power.
 
That has to be the objec­tive of running for office. Our struggle for power in that pro­cess has to be for the purpose of eroding the power of the colonial State and transfer­ring that power to the people through its revolutionary orga­nization.
 
Certainly, that’s what we would be involved in doing as the African People’s Socialist Party.
 
So I think this question of electoral politics is extremely important because I don’t think that it is an arena that revolu­tionaries can afford to ignore. I think that we have to assume the responsibility of fighting, on every front, to not allow the African petty bourgeoisie or the bourgeoisie to be able to struggle for power.
 
DS: Chairman, what are your thoughts when you hear that many people be­lieve that Chokwe Lumum­ba was assassinated?
 
OY: Well, I think that any reasonable African, or revo­lutionary in any place on Earth, should look with seri­ous suspicion at the death of Comrade Chokwe.
 
That is in part because of the kinds of things he was trying to introduce in Jackson from his position as mayor, and also because of this in­credible history that he has.
 
He survived shoot-outs and things like that with the FBI. In fact, that became a part of the campaign propa­ganda put out against him when he was running for mayor.
 
I know that Chokwe had some health issues, but the fact is that the existence of the health issues could be something that the State would rely on to cover any attempt to kill someone like Chokwe.
 
I think it is absolutely right to be suspicious. At this point we don’t know that much about the death. There are various rumors that are circulating about how he went to the hospital and how he was feeling, and then, of course, there is knowledge of the history of the struggle he had with prostate cancer some years ago.
 
But the world is on fire. Every place that you look in the world you see incredible struggle, on virtually every continent. People are strug­gling to change their rela­tionship with imperialism.
 
Right now, this country, in concert with various tra­ditional, imperialist powers, is doing everything it can to push back all of the things that are contributing to de­stroying this system.
 
There is what they are do­ing in Venezuela at this mo­ment to try to push that back, something that we anticipat­ed in the Political Report to the Sixth Congress. The ac­tivity that they are engaged in Ukraine to push the guns of imperialism right to the door of Russia that is mani­festing itself as in contention, not with capitalism or impe­rialism, but with the order of things as they are, in its own selfish interests.
 
Almost every place you look, you can see this des­perate attack by the imperial­ists to push back the whole revolutionary process.
 
The thousands of people that the United States gov­ernment is participating in killing in Syria; the thousands of people who have died or have been made homeless in Libya; the thousands of peo­ple who are kept in the worst kinds of circumstances as AFRICOM maintains the sta­tus quo in Africa.
 
Look at what the U.S. gov­ernment is doing right here in the United States, in terms of the kinds of laws that are be­ing used to justify controlling African people, putting whole communities off-limits to oth­er people in the community using various kinds of laws.
 
So there is no doubt in my mind that the ruling class here and around the world anticipate having to fight in this country against the movement for independence that aims to change our re­lationship to starvation and poverty imposed on us by the United States.
 
They anticipate that this movement is going to mani­fest itself very sharply here in the United States be­cause it’s happened before, and who has always led this movement except the African people in this country?
 
I think we should even be suspicious of the death of Amiri Baraka who was 79 and just went to the hospital for some relatively minor pro­cedure but never leaves the hospital alive.
 
The thing that’s striking about this that must be rec­ognized is that in the 1960s, when revolution reached its height in this country, African people had no revolutionary veterans that we could go to for any kind of leadership or direction in terms of making revolution.
 
It was all on the job train­ing.
 
Just think about it. The revolutionary lifespan of the Black Panther Party was no more than three years be­cause the government had not allowed, generally speak­ing, for revolutionary orga­nizations to survive long enough to acquire experi­ence or a certain kind of po­litical maturity.
 
Chokwe and Amiri Baraka and other people like that represent experience and a certain kind of political matu­rity, despite the fact that we think that they were ideologi­cally off-center.
 
We think that this govern­ment would have been con­cerned with them, just as it’s probably concerned with us.
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